Reining In the War Economy

Reining In the War Economy

It’s time to end the Pentagon’s stranglehold on our national budget. 


America has a national security problem. But it goes well beyond the challenges posed by Russia or China. The biggest threat is right here at home: the Pentagon’s stranglehold on our national budget, alongside the woefully inadequate investments in addressing urgent, nonmilitary problems like climate change, pandemics, and racial and economic injustice.

Nowhere are these misplaced priorities more evident than in Congress, where the House and Senate routinely add tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon budget beyond what the department even asks for, in order to shovel funds to weapons contractors based in their states and districts. This year Congress is poised to push the budget to at least $850 billion. This is far higher than spending at the peak of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the height of the Cold War.

The choice is clear: continuing to fund weapons companies and arms-related jobs in key states and districts to the exclusion of more important investments in our safety and security, or crafting a plan for defense that is actually grounded in what will make the United States and the world safer.

That’s where Miriam Pemberton’s new book, Six Stops on the National Security Tour: Rethinking Warfare Economies (Routledge, 2022), comes in. Pemberton has spent most of her career doing research and advocacy on how best to reduce America’s economic dependency on Pentagon spending. Her book includes both case studies of communities that have tried to reduce the Pentagon’s grip on their local economies and big-picture policy prescriptions to make a transition to one in which members of Congress feel freer to vote for more rational approaches to defense without paying a political price.

Efforts to provide alternatives to the war economy date back to the post–World War II period, and gained renewed strength in the period after the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and again at the end of the Cold War. Labor leaders like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers—a union that was and is a significant player in arms production—drew up a visionary plan for moving towards a more civilian-oriented economy as early as 1945. Starting in the 1960s and continuing for decades thereafter, Columbia University engineering professor Seymour Melman advocated for a comprehensive approach to economic conversion that could support a transition away from what he described as “the permanent war economy.” Melman’s proposals were embodied in legislation, introduced initially by Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 1964 and picked up by Representative Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) in 1982.

Similar efforts continued in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when William Winpisinger of the International Association of Machinists—which, like the UAW, were major participants in the weapons sector—advocated for economic conversion of military industries along with groups like the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament. They were joined at the local level by citizen’s organizations in defense dependent states like California, Connecticut, Maine, and Missouri.

None of these efforts succeeded on a broad scale, but Pemberton describes a number of promising local initiatives that could be replicated, updated, and brought to scale with appropriate federal, state, and local support.

Consider CALSTART, a consortium in Southern California that was started in 1992 and brought together state and local air quality boards, public utilities, engineering and environmental research firms, and defense and commercial companies to develop the technology and infrastructure for the alternative fuel industry, backed by public funding. The project faced a series of obstacles, from the resistance of military-producing firms to retooling to fragmented and inadequate government support. But CALSTART has had a lasting impact: It helped launch a major fleet of electric buses in cities across the country, and is working on doing the same for trucks and other heavy equipment.

Perhaps the most successful case of conversion occurred in greater Binghamton, N.Y., where engineers at Lockheed Martin began in the mid-1990s to develop a way to apply defense technology to the production of hybrid buses. That work, which continued when the relevant unit was bought by the weapons maker BAE Systems, has resulted in the sale of hybrid buses to major cities like New York, Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta, as well as a number of overseas destinations. One challenge this effort faces is that the market for buses pales in comparison with the more than $250 billion the Pentagon spends annually on weapons research and development and procurement, a pool of funds that incentivizes firms like Lockheed Martin and BAE to continue to focus on arms production. This flood of military-related funding leaves the development of alternatives as a secondary priority, not large enough to make a major shift away from defense dependency for Binghamton area firms or communities around the country.

Solving the problem of economic reliance on war and preparations for war—and its role in shaping budget priorities—will ultimately depend on dramatic changes at the national level. Pemberton lays out the key policies needed to make progress towards a demilitarized economy.

First is the need to abandon the strategy of military dominance that has cost so much and produced so little in terms of security. As the Costs of War Project at Brown University has documented, America’s post-9/11 wars have cost over $8 trillion. A more restrained strategy could provide a more effective defense while saving at least $1 trillion over the next decade, and perhaps far more. There are multiple routes to this level of savings, as outlined in recent years by the Cato Institute, the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, and the Congressional Budget Office.

Second, military strategy must be accompanied by a shift from a militarized industrial policy toward one that gives priority to genuine civilian industrial policy. This approach includes shifting considerable sums from the hundreds of billions spent—and often squandered—for military purposes towards addressing existential threats like climate change and the lack of clean water in many American communities.

A successful effort will require hundreds of billions of public investment at the federal, state, and local levels. It will also involve retraining, technical and marketing assistance, and transitional income support for affected workers, among other policy tools. The most promising candidate for an alternative to endless investment in the Pentagon is a program of sustainable development that finances technologies needed to address climate change, from alternative energy sources to electric vehicles to cleaner industrial processes and energy efficient homes and office buildings.

There is no time to waste. Climate change poses the greatest current threat to humanity. A policy of “just transition” that provides alternative jobs for both employees currently involved in producing weapons of war and other displaced workers such as those in the fossil fuel industry offers the best hope of a humane and viable way forward.

Pemberton cites a number of groups working toward reducing the Pentagon budget and shifting funds toward more essential priorities, from the Poor People’s Campaign to #PeopleOverPentagon, a network of peace, government accountability, environmental, immigration, and political reform groups working in support of legislation cosponsored by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) that would cut $100 billion per year from the Pentagon budget. They face powerful opposition within Congress, including the Senate ICBM Coalition and the House F-35 Caucus, groups that have successfully defended and in some cases expanded funding for their weapons of choice—all with the aid of powerful arms makers, the military services, and the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense. Advocates of cutting the Pentagon budget will need a stronger and more diverse group of allies to achieve their objectives in the face of this determined and well-funded opposition. This will be an uphill battle in our current political climate. But it is even more essential for that reason.

Pemberton ends her book with a fateful question: “Will the US economy, steeped in the structures and self-serving mechanisms of its Military Industrial Complex, be able to adjust before it’s too late?” The answer will be central to our safety and survival as a nation and a global community.

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